Ex-FBI agent watches Turnpike's contracts
A former FBI agent who fought union rackets and mobsters wants to clean up the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, one contract at a time, as the agency's new compliance chief.
David A. Gentile, on the job for two months, said he's more focused on investigating and controlling the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars for construction and purchasing than in looking at employee malfeasance that might cost thousands.
“While it's necessary to handle allegations involving (misconduct), I want to turn our attention on more substantive matters — issues that have a substantial impact on the commission's bottom line,” said Gentile, of Laurel Springs, N.J.
Change orders — requests to change the scope of a project after the award of a construction contract — can be worrisome, he said. Often they result in more work and higher costs. Change orders average 3 percent to 4 percent of spending on projects, which falls within industry standards, agency spokesman Carl DeFebo said.
From January through October, the commission approved 62 such orders, increasing construction costs by $13.7 million, online agency records show.
Several individual change orders amounted to more than $1 million, records show.
The commission paid a $6.3 million change order in April to New Enterprise Stone and Lime Co. of South Woodbury, Bedford County. The company's costs increased and the duration of an $11.4 million resurfacing project near Bedford grew because the commission cut the hours when it could work and restrict traffic in order to reduce congestion, DeFebo said. The company did not return a call for comment.
Walsh Construction, a Chicago-based company with a regional office in Canonsburg, received the next two largest change orders. The commission OK'd a $2.7 million change order in April because the company had to repair temporary lanes motorists used on the turnpike's Northeastern Extension while crews rebuilt other lanes in a $150 million project, DeFebo said. Rights-of-way disputes also delayed the project.
A $1.7 million change order for Walsh was approved in May to place a more durable pavement on the new $95 million Monongahela River Bridge on the Mon-Fayette Expressway. The company did not return a call.
Some contracts did cost less than anticipated, records show. The commission spent a combined $276.4 million on 32 contracts, about $4.7 million less than expected when it awarded them, records show.
“That's very good. Transportation departments typically get into trouble for putting out estimates that are rough, back-of-the-envelope-type guesses that turn out not being close at all, especially for big-dollar projects,” said Brian Derry, a senior director with the Associated General Contractors of America, an advocacy group.
Gentile, whose starting salary is $151,673 a year, will oversee the turnpike's inspector general, toll-revenue audit and operations review departments. In 24 years as an FBI special agent in Philadelphia, he investigated organized crime, labor racketeering and public corruption cases. He joined the FBI after working for eight years as an elementary and junior high principal.
Since retiring from the FBI in 2003, he directed labor relations for Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Convention Center, worked as an executive for a casino management company in Atlantic City and started a private investigation firm.
The commission also hired Kurt Montz, a former deputy chief in the attorney general's Bureau of Criminal Investigations, as deputy compliance chief for $120,677 a year. It also expects to hire an administrative assistant.
“The turnpike is now spending almost $600 million a year on capital contracts,” said former turnpike CEO Roger E. Nutt, who resigned last month for health reasons. “That's a lot of money to put out there, and I think we needed to be taking a closer look at all of those third-party contracts.”
Nutt considers the creation of compliance jobs among his accomplishments during 19 months on the job.
Turnpike critic Matt Brouillette, CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, doubts it will do much good, citing the commission's $7.8 billion debt. The debt tripled since the Legislature passed a law in 2007 requiring the agency to give PennDOT $450 million a year for road, bridge and transit projects. It borrowed money and will raise tolls annually to meet the requirement.
“It's good that they're overturning every rock and stone to find savings, but it's going to take more than a few million here and there. It would take tens of thousands of those types of savings to save the Turnpike Commission,” Brouillette said.
Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or firstname.lastname@example.org.